Chinese smartphone brands produce a large volume of phones, and the standard has steadily increased across the board—meaning that even the lower-end models are still quite capable, while the higher-end models can be quite good. Indeed, the recent spring flagship releases from Xiaomi, OnePlus, Vivo, and Oppo are all so good that they are virtually tied with the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra as the year’s best Androids. Selecting one from the group to crown as the best is entirely subjective.
This puts ZTE’s new Axon 30 Ultra up against stiff competition. And, while I believe it is not as polished as the aforementioned flagships, it does have one significant advantage over the majority of Chinese brands except for OnePlus: the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is now officially available in the United States.
And its $750 price tag is quite appealing, given that it is nearly $500 less expensive than Samsung’s S21 Ultra and $250 less expensive than the OnePlus 9 Pro. Additionally, the Axon 30 Ultra outperforms those devices in some ways. For instance, ZTE’s phone display features a 144Hz refresh rate, compared to Samsung and OnePlus’s 120Hz. Additionally, it features a 64-megapixel ultra-wide camera with the highest pixel density of any ultra-wide lens I’ve seen.
However, as I previously stated, the phone is a little rough around the edges (both metaphorically and literally) and could use some polishing. Perhaps software updates will resolve these issues in due course.
Internal design and construction
The Axon 30 Ultra is another typical Android slab made of glass and aluminum. The 144Hz screen is OLED and curved, which makes it look fantastic. However, ZTE’s curvature is quite dramatic in comparison to other Android phones, which, when combined with the slightly sharp corners and flat top and bottom, results in an angular phone with slightly pointed sides. It has a rougher feel in the hand than the typical super-rounded, curvy Xiaomi or Samsung devices.
Having said that, I believe the phone’s strong angular vibes are masculine (in my opinion) and thus attractive. However, I dislike the unit’s plain dull grey color.
The phone is powered by the standard Snapdragon 888 processor with 12GB of RAM. This, combined with the 144Hz refresh rate (which means the screen refreshes 144 times per second), results in an ultra-smooth experience. I occasionally find myself scrolling through apps simply to admire the animation. After a day with this phone, switch to a 60Hz panel, as with an older Android, and the UI appears noticeably jerkier.
The Axon 30 Ultra features a quad-camera setup, but curiously, the marketing emphasizes three lenses while ignoring the fourth (the Periscope zoom lens). The three cameras attracting attention—which ZTE refers to as the “Trinity Camera system”—come in standard wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto focal lengths and all feature 64-megapixel sensors. It is highly unusual for all three cameras to have the same pixel count, implying that equal attention was paid to each lens.
For the most part, the camera performs admirably. During the day, either of the three “Trinity” cameras produces excellent still images, and the 8-megapixel Periscope zoom lens also produces sharp 5x zoom. At night, the phone’s brightness is artificially increased to compensate for visible noise in dark scenes. Certain night shots exhibit digital artifacts as well—in general, I would not call this the best night camera available. However, the phone is capable of capturing some impressive images during the day.
The video performance is excellent, with significantly better stabilization than average. Unfortunately, once you begin filming, you cannot freely switch between the ultra-wide and main cameras.
ZTE’s camera app is simple to use, with a large number of built-in filters and intuitive settings.
Battery life and software
The Axon 30 Ultra is equipped with ZTE’s software skin on top of Android 11. It’s an attractive skin with a plethora of customization options that, thankfully, does not obstruct Android too much. For instance, ZTE’s new navigation system, dubbed “Z-Pop,” is essentially a floating button that overlays the user interface. Those who prefer this system may use it; those who do not may simply turn it off, and it will never obstruct their work. Additionally, the notification shade’s shortcut toggle buttons are large and colorful, making them easy to access.
With a 144Hz refresh rate and a bright display panel with a resolution of 1080 x 2400, the 4,600 mAh battery can be depleted in as little as six to eight hours if the user is really pushing it. However, with normal usage, 10-11 hours of battery life is possible, making it acceptable.
Unfortunately, there is no wireless charging—users must instead rely on the included 66W fast charging brick, which can charge the phone from 0 to 100% in less than 26 minutes.
The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra features a premium display, processor, software, and a daytime camera. However, night photos are inadequate, and the phone lacks wireless charging and IP water resistance. However, at $750, it’s difficult to complain—especially in the United States.
If you live in a region where Xiaomi is available, I would argue that the Xiaomi Mi 11 or Poco F3 Pro are a better buy; however, in the United States, where the only other viable Android options are Samsung or OnePlus, ZTE’s new handset is a very worthy and more affordable alternative.